Kauai is for the birds

Malama Kauai is a nonprofit community education and outreach farm that raises food on seven acres near Kilauea.

In Hawaiian, Malama means to take care of, tend, attend, care for, preserve and protect. Malama Kauai does that through the Kauai School Garden Network; hosting a 42-plot Kalihiwai Community Garden; co-sponsoring a two-acre food forest; as well as maintaining a livestock pasture with goats and sheep and a two-acre chicken and vegetable farm.

The farm also provides food, plant materials and learning opportunities to the community while fostering sustainability through initiatives such as solar powered office space and organic production methods.

In addition, Malama Kauai provides processing services for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which enables those with EBT cards to purchase locally grown produce at five Sunshine Markets. The participating county-run farmers markets are listed on the Malama Kauai website under “Our Programs,” then “Kauai Local Food Web.”

Three months ago, Executive Director Keone Kealoha adopted 160 chickens that live on a two-acre pasture. One of his goals is to stop importing chicken feed.

“How can we feed chickens with food sourced from Kauai?” Keone asks. “Right now we import organic layer pellets to feed hens a consistent protein source. Figuring out how to feed chickens with local inputs is a huge part of closing the loop.”

Another way to close the sustainability loop would be to utilize the feral chicken population. I haven’t counted, but there’s got to be at least one million chickens clucking around Kauai. However, you won’t see them on our dinner plates because there is not a USDA certified poultry processing facility on the island.

For the record, I am a fan of Kauai’s wild fowl and welcome their call as a natural alarm clock. To me, they are an endearing part of Kauai’s soundtrack along with the ocean and many other birds. Whether you’re friend or foe, many people wonder how the island became infiltrated with the contested bird.

In Hawaiian, chickens are called moa. Moa hiwa, moa’alae (black); moa lawa, moa uakea (white); moa’ula hiwa (black with red at neck and rump); moa nene (speckled); moa pua hau (yellow); piopio (at about the fryer stage); and a chicken house is called hale moa. According to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, the first settlers to Hawaii introduced pigs and chickens that were of Asian ancestry.

In her book “Kauai Stories,” author Pamela Varma Brown writes that Kauai has the largest feral chicken population in the state, and that’s why Oahu residents say, “Kauai, so country!” According to Brown, immigrant plantation laborers raised chickens for food and entertainment, in the form of cockfights. While hurricanes Iwa and Iniki devastated the island, their chickens’ coops were destroyed and the feral population grew.

While some residents harvest these wild chickens and serve them for dinner, others raise them for eggs. For those who choose to raise them, Keone’s mana’o (knowledge) may be useful.

“Chickens are pack animals,” explains Keone, “so I was told to never leave a chicken alone or it will literally die of loneliness. We have a chicken with an injured eye so we put her in a coop to heal. After one day, she was super lethargic so I put another one in there. The next day, the sick chicken was active and eating again.”

Malama Kauai raises 148 hens and two roosters in a fenced, one-acre pen. The perimeter of the pen is surrounded by newly planted edible hibiscus and comfrey. Keone expects that once these plants grow and begin to creep to the edges of the fence, the chickens will feed on them.

Every three months, the chickens are rotated through four quarter-acre paddocks. One quadrant is left to rest and recover so the manure breaks down and adds nutrients to the soil. Vegetables are planted in a second quadrant, and as far as local chicken inputs go, Keone plans to plant soybeans and kale, which are packed with protein and nutrients. A cover crop is planted in the third quadrant, which adds nutrients to the soil and will later feed the chickens. The fourth quadrant is where the chickens scratch for insects, eat the cover crop and roost under a large canopy.

Hens lay eggs year-round but produce more during the long days of summer, when they lay an average of one egg about every 36 hours. In the winter months, shorter days trigger chickens to molt. As they lose their feathers, they don’t have enough protein to make eggs. Consequently, production drops by about 50 percent. Commercial producers turn on lights during winter to extend growing days.

“Eating local is a way to close the loop,” explains Keone. “But on Kauai, it presents infrastructure and distribution challenges. These are things that speak more to the economics of a community, using the lens of food. Over time, I’ve realized that we are really talking about the local economy, and at the moment, just focusing on food. Agritourism is a great example of how we can cross over to visitor traffic and create a diversified economic exchange. That creates more self reliance than just growing food so we can eat.”

Malama Kauai’s eggs as well as edible hibiscus and comfrey cuttings are sold at the Namahana farmers market in Kilauea (near Kauai Mini Golf) on Saturday mornings. For more information call 828–0685, or visit MalamaKauai.com.

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Marta Lane has been a food writer on Kauai since 2010. After graduating from a 12-week organic farming course on the North Shore, she became the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture manager. Marta is the author of “Tasting Kauai: Restaurants – An Insider’s Guide to Eating Well on the Garden Island.” For more information, visit www.TastingKauai.com.

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